What if Alberta were treated the same as Quebec?

When Quebecers go to the polls in Monday’s provincial election, they’re expected to provide us with some relief from the neverendum

By Gregory Thomas

Federal Director, Canadian Taxpayers Federation

(This commentary was written before Monday’s election in Quebec

When Quebecers go to the polls in Monday’s provincial election, they’re expected to provide us with some relief from the neverendum — the never-ending referendum speculation that turns every Quebec election into a circus, where Canada’s future is centre stage, poised on a tight wire without a net.

But a vote by Quebecers against a referendum shouldn’t force Canadians to keep picking up the tab for an all-you-eat buffet of federal handouts. It isn’t helping Quebecers. And Canadians simply can’t afford it.

If Canadians are fed up with endless referendum chatter, Quebecers don’t seem to be far behind. A poll this week from Forum Research shows only 23 per cent of Quebec voters want another referendum, even with 29 per cent support for the governing separatists, the Parti Quebecois, and seven per cent backing Quebec Solidaire — folks so radical, they split off from the PQ.

It’s no wonder Quebecers have no time for referendum talk, they’ve got real problems to talk about: high unemployment, the highest taxes in the country and the highest government debt load relative to the size of their economy.

What’s worse, Canadians have been bailing out the Quebec government for years, through federal government transfer payments, only to see the province sink deeper and deeper into the red, no matter which party happens to be in power.

Just before the election, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois brought down a pre-election budget, projecting a deficit of $1.75 billion, with the province going $7.1 billion deeper in debt.

That’s despite federal transfer payments of $18.3 billion, representing 19 per cent of Quebec’s total revenue.

And even with a fifth of the budget coming from federal handouts, Quebec still plans to hit the bond markets for $7.1 billion, bringing its gross debt to $205.6 billion.

Wait a minute, you might argue. There are 8.2 million Quebecers. They pay federal taxes, and their provincial government is entitled to those federal transfer payments — $2,235 for each Quebecer.

So let’s apply that argument to Alberta and British Columbia. There are 8.7 million Canadians living in these two provinces. Alberta is expecting $6.2 billion in federal transfer payments in the coming year, while B.C. gets $7.4 billion, a grand total of $13.6 billion, or $1,564 for each resident of these two western provinces.

If the federal government transferred as much money per resident to Alberta and B.C. as it does Quebec, both western governments would get an additional $2.9 billion this year.

That’s enough money to cover all of Alberta’s provincial school tax and fuel tax combined.

That’s enough money, nearly, to wipe out the remaining debt on British Columbia’s provincially funded Port Mann Bridge project, where drivers now pay $6 a day in tolls for a round trip on that portion of the Trans-Canada Highway.

Meanwhile, the last federal budget set aside funding for a $5-billion replacement for Montreal’s Champlain Bridge. Amazingly, Quebec’s Premier Marois, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard and Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre are all adamantly opposed to tolls on the new federal bridge.

This kind of blatant unfairness to the rest of Canada doesn’t stop with transfer payments, or demands for a free bridge.

Let’s start with federal income tax: in 2011 — the most recent year the Canada Revenue Agency has provided stats for — Albertans paid $18.4 billion, while B.C. residents paid $13.7 billion. Quebecers: $21.7 billion. That’s $4,511 for every Albertan, $2,980 for every B.C. resident and $2,658 for every Quebecer.

Since 2008, the Harper Conservatives have hiked maximum annual employment insurance taxes 28 per cent, doing little to address the inequality in Canada’s employment insurance scheme, which favours many regions in Quebec with higher weekly benefits and more weeks of benefits than just about every region in Alberta and B.C.

In January, there were 29,370 Albertans and 51,810 B.C. residents collecting EI benefits, for a combined total of 81,180 EI recipients. Quebec, with its smaller population, had 142,000 people collecting EI. It’s one big reason that residents of Alberta and B.C. paid $28.5 billion more in EI taxes than they collected in benefits between 1981 and 2009. In the same period, Quebec residents collected $6.8 billion more than they actually paid into the program.

One of the few things that have grown faster than EI taxes since 2008 is Quebec’s gross provincial debt: despite all the federal handouts, Quebec will owe 35 per cent more by the end of the year than it did in 2008, a staggering $53 billion of additional red ink — $6,489 in new borrowing for every man, woman and child in the province.

Quebec separatists are right about one thing: Canada’s system of federal handouts isn’t working for Canadians in Quebec, or anywhere else.